As a follow-up to last week's column: "Scared to…," let me provide a bit more context for the fear and anxiety I wrote about, as well as some history for you readers to appreciate the emotional challenges some of us cancer patients experience.
It all began with the initial Team Lourie meeting on Feb. 27, 2009 when we met my oncologist for the first time.
After exchanging pleasantries, such as they could be, I was examined by my oncologist in an adjacent room. After he completed his exam, we all re-assembled in his office where he reviewed the results of my most recent medical history dating back to Jan. 1, 2010 when I first showed up at the Emergency Room complaining of shortness of breath.
Subsequently, there were two sets of X-Rays, one CT scan, one P.E.T. scan and then a surgical biopsy to confirm the previous findings. It was nearly eight weeks to the day that I learned my diagnosis: non-small cell lung cancer, stage IV. And so my oncologist began to talk. I'm semi-quoting, but clearly remembering the substance:
I can treat you, but I can't cure you. Your prognosis is 13 months to two years. The percentage of patients who live beyond two years is 2 percent. Could you be the one who lives beyond two years? Absolutely. This is extremely serious. You should begin chemotherapy as soon as possible. Next week if possible.
Then our questions began – after we gathered our composure that is. I mean, hearing these words directed at you is as surreal as it gets, and with limited knowledge on the subject and the circumstances, we had difficulty starting a conversation.
This is as much as I remember hearing that day. Could there have been more? I'm sure. Unfortunately, we were ill-prepared for the occasion.
Though there were three of us: my wife, Dina, my brother, Richard, and myself – collectively, what went in all of our ears went out in different directions.
What was said, what was heard, what was understood, what was remembered, was all a jumble. No one thought to take notes or bring in a recording device, two suggestions which have been subsequently made and that I now pass on to you.
My oncologist answered our questions about surgery, radiation, treatment, drugs, side effects, schedule, etc., all of which was difficult to absorb.
He then attempted to describe what my life would be like going forward, offering no guarantees of anything particularly hopeful, which now explains the reasons for these two columns: death and progression from dying/symptoms getting worse. He used a staircase as an example.
My health would steadily decline, as if walking down a flight of stairs. As my health deteriorated/symptoms manifested (down a couple of steps), he could stabilize me there by trying new treatment. But he could never bring my health back to its previous place. Then, after a while, the new treatment would become unsuccessful (down a few more steps), and again, he could stabilize me but he couldn't bring me back. And on and on until… . I think I can remember another visual he offered: playing with a yo-yo as I descended the stairs; down, down, down.
Amazingly, this has not happened to me, despite a week's long hospitalization five-plus years ago.
HOWEVER, per my understanding of my condition (I wasn't diagnosed as "terminal" for nothing), I anticipate stepping down at some point. And any time – every time – I experience symptoms uncharacteristic of my semi-normal existence, I ALWAYS wonder if this is the beginning of my end.
And as much as I want to stay one step ahead, it's hard for me (practically impossible) to not think that when new symptoms occur, cancer is stepping up its attack.